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Nancy Stoner’s Blog

Funding New Thinking about Water

Nancy Stoner

Posted May 7, 2009 in Curbing Pollution

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Today, Senators Boxer (D-CA), Inhofe (R-OK), Cardin (D-MD), and Crapo (R-ID) will introduce the Water Infrastructure Financing Act, which will reauthorize Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water state revolving funds.  These funds are the principal federal contribution to funding water and wastewater infrastructure across the country.

The state revolving funds aren't new - they have been in existence since 1987 - but the focus of the funding is new.  It used to pay for pipes, pumps, and treatment plants pretty much exclusively, which is technology designed to move "wastewaters" away from homes, businesses, and factories quickly, provide chemical or mechanical treatment, then put it into waterways to drain to the coasts.  The thinking today is different, and the bill, to its authors' credit, reflects that.  Now the goal is to protect and restore the hydrology of the natural environment by using and returning water to its place of origin, restoring wetlands, planting stream buffers and other natural purifiers, and using treatment approaches that mimic natural functions.  The bill provides incentives for these types of approaches.

The other principle the bill clearly reflects is the value of water.  Conservation, efficiency, and reuse are woven throughout the bill.  "Wastewater" is a concept of the past.  Now there are just forms of water that can be safely used for various purposes based on their volume, location, and quality.

The bill contains a number of grant programs for research, pilot projects, and other specific purposes, such as replacing lead drinking water pipes.  These are all significant improvements in the law that will drive innovation in the field and protect public health. 

I salute the bill's authors for the vision and foresight reflected in the bill as a whole.

There is, however, a gaping flaw in the Clean Water State Revolving Fund program that the bill fails to address and which has the potential to swallow up the water resource improvements that this legislation would otherwise be expected to bring.  The bill continues to fund new sewage treatment plants and new sewage and stormwater collection systems in greenfields, i.e., currently undeveloped or working landscapes.  We know that if you build water infrastructure in such areas, sprawl will come, which means more impervious surfaces and more polluted runoff.  These effects are largely irreversible. 

It makes no sense to continue to use Clean Water Act funds to create new pollution that the Clean Water Act will then require to be addressed.  I urge the Senate to address this issue as the bill moves forward.

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